by I. Chothia

To mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2022

Hello! My name’s Hassan and I’m 12 years old. I’m not just an ordinary boy – I’m also good at maths, learning to play the piano, and can do 76 keepy-uppies! But this story isn’t about me. I know you think it is because, well, here I am, except it really isn’t. I’m not sure who it’s about actually, but do you know what I think? I think that by the time you’ve finished reading this, it’ll be about you, too.

Mr. Freeman, our English teacher, had asked the class to keep a diary of everything we saw over a whole week. ‘It doesn’t matter if you think it’s interesting or not,’ he said, waving two fingers in our direction. ‘We can often learn about the world and indeed ourselves,’ he added, ‘in all things great and small.’ Mr. Freeman was a bit weird when it came to things like this. Francesca in year 7 said that she once saw him hugging a tree like it was a person and no one was surprised, but since then, everyone started calling him Mr. Treeman. What on earth was I going to write about? I wish I could be as excited about something as Mr. Treeman, I mean Mr. Freeman, was. His eyes would light up as if he had just discovered a mountain full of gold. Now that’d be something to write about!

The following week, Mr. Freeman called the class up one by one to read out what they’d written. It was actually pretty cool, you know. First, Emma went on and on about how there was a tree called a weeping willow, which made her wonder what a tree had to cry about. Probably having to look at you, I thought. (It was a joke and it’s not like I said it out loud!) But then we found out that Malik was a carer for his mum and Tristan was allergic to water. Water! I mean, who’s allergic to water?? Mr. Freeman was right – we were learning so much – but the lesson most important of all was yet to arrive on our doorstep.

When it was my turn, I walked to the front of the class and took a deep breath, the way you might when you get ready to run home in the rain. I told the class about the way my mum likes things arranged in our house, about the dog that always pees in our garden, about quirky grandad Tommy next door (not my real grandad), who always made the kids cry, and about the girl who couldn’t walk. I thought I was doing really well, but by the time I got to Wednesday, Mr. Freeman raised his hand.

‘Why do you keep calling her that?’ he asked.

‘Calling who what?’ I replied.

‘The girl,’ he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘You keep saying she can’t walk.’

‘But she can’t,’ I said, again as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

‘What’s her name?’ he asked. I didn’t know. How was I supposed to? So, I just shrugged.

All I knew was that she lived in a small bungalow not too far from school, that she couldn’t walk, and that whenever we saw her on the way to school or when driving into town, Mum would always tut and say, ‘Look at that poor girl, she can’t even walk,’ and we’d just gaze at her with tight lips until we reached the end of the street.

Mr. Freeman looked around at all of us, as if he had just stumbled upon that mountain full of gold after all and didn’t quite know what to do now that he had. Finally, he asked the class if there was anything they were not very good at. I don’t know why people were so proud of it but there were lots of answers. ‘And you, Hassan?’ he asked finally. ‘What are you not very good at?’

‘Art,’ I replied. ‘Oh, and basketball.’

‘So, are you an untalented artist? Or a feeble sportsman?’ He didn’t wait for an answer, not that I had one. I was suddenly feeling very self-conscious. So, I just sat there in a bit of a daze. ‘Or are you, in fact, a young man who might not be very good with a paintbrush but who is amazing at so many other things, hm?’ Right then, I felt that calling her “poor” might not have been a very nice thing to do. The best teachers always make you see things by pointing somewhere else; and then Mr. Freeman said something that would change our lives forever: ‘Remember, Hassan,’ he said, raising his eyebrows. ‘We are not defined by the things that we can’t do, but by the things that we can and the things that we choose to do.’

By the time Saturday came around, I had already planned what I was going to say to her. I had practised it enough times of course: ‘Hello, my name’s Hassan,’ I would say. ‘I felt like doing something nice for someone, so I’ve brought you this delicious cake; I didn’t make it because I’m not good at baking but there are loads of things I’m good at.’ Then I’d laugh, (not a cackle, but just a little one, so she’d know I wasn’t being mean).

Of course, by the time I started walking towards the door, I’d forgotten everything.

‘Just be yourself,’ Mum kept saying, ushering me towards the door. It’d just been raining, and the little hatched roof glimmered with tiny raindrops chasing one another; and a hatchling that could barely lift its head was singing from its nest. But just as I reached up to press the doorbell, I dropped the cake. It practically fell through my hands as if it was jelly and landed in the only way I knew it would: splat on the doorstep. I fell to my knees; I was so angry at myself; anyone would be.

As I sat with my knees denting the ground, hopelessly trying to salvage what I could, trying to figure out what I’d done to possibly deserve this, I heard the door open.

‘Ah, basketball, it all makes sense,’ came a gentle voice.

As my hand squelched deeper down three layers of cream, I looked up to find Mr. Freeman’s ever friendly face beaming into mine. Last term, we had a maths test and I must’ve spent eight minutes staring at a question I knew I just didn’t know the answer to. I imagine I had the same look on my face that Saturday afternoon.

‘Ah, Mr. Freeman,’ said Mum right behind me, who was as surprised as I was. ‘We didn’t know this was your place,’ she continued. ‘I am so sorry about the cake. It’s just that Hassan…’

‘Don’t even worry about it,’ he said excitedly, as if stumbling upon that mountain full of gold for real this time. ‘A home without guests is like a deserted house.’ He winked at me and nodded inside. ‘Go ahead,’ he said, ‘the hostess awaits.’ I walked in, as he and Mum stayed to clear up the rest of the mess.

‘Please, come in,’ called out a voice before I had the chance to say something. The voice was even brighter than Mr. Freeman’s (if that was at all possible) and came from a girl sat in a wheelchair, who had her back towards me. She was working on the most amazing painting – it was oil, I think: a fisherman on a boat just as the sun was setting, sitting next to an empty net, and yet still smiling. I almost wish she hadn’t said anything so I could carry on watching her work. ‘I’m Fatima,’ she said, finally turning around to reveal her warm smile, which was more beautiful than the painting.

‘I’m Hassan,’ I finally mustered, ‘and I’m rubbish at painting!’

She laughed but it was kind. She showed me her paintings in a room that had transformed the bungalow into a gallery. She had carved delightful little chess pieces out of rosewood, and I wondered at them the way you might wonder at the stars if you were looking at them for the first time. And in that moment, I felt so small. If I was a star, she was the Milky Way. I learned that Fatima wasn’t some poor disabled girl, after all. Yes, she was a girl with a disability, but she was also a girl with a thousand abilities.

Then it clicked: There she was, the girl who wasn’t defined by what she couldn’t do. There she was, the girl who could.